What exactly is an "eco-friendly" product?
Yes, what exactly is that?
Let’s just put it this way. There are so many ways we can criticise a product. I have yet to come across any ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ product that did not get criticised at some point for being ‘hypocritical’. So it seems it’s an unachievable ideal, or that it means different things to different people.
Before you think I’m going to start defining what ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ means, as a marketer myself, the first word I want to draw everyone’s attention to is the word ‘product’.
A product is designed to be traded and consumed in the market. It means it comes with deliberate effort to make it more appealing to consumers. It might be a special packaging, ingredients, texture, formulation, production process, etc. That probably doesn’t add that much value to the effectiveness of the product.
But that’s what it takes. Until consumers don’t care about the superficialities and are educated enough to do their own research and appreciate the product as is, we will need to accept trade offs.
Reformation claims that being naked is the #1 sustainable option, but they didn’t get people to steer away from fast fashion companies by advertising being naked. That would bring them 0 revenue and a company with an ‘eco-mission’ won’t survive in this case (who knows! maybe there’s a biz case there by being naked! Something to think about…) Instead, they create eye-catching garments that makes you remember that clothing can be ‘sustainable’. You might not buy their products, but you will buy their ‘concept’. That’s half the battle.
A reusable coffee cup company produces a collection with 10 colours, not because a red cup is more sustainable than that of other brands, but because they realise that they need people to buy it in order to ‘save the environment’.
What is also important is ‘liability’. As a ‘product’ (vs a “DIY” that you use / make at home), the owner has to be liable to what they present to their consumers. Perhaps more relevant to beauty products, they have to ensure that the product is safe to use, and that often means special packaging that might create ‘waste’. When it comes to being ‘green’, there is no compromise of safety and health. So we really have to judge whether that packaging is worth it. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
OK, now that we’ve steered clear of the ‘boundaries’, the real meaty (juicy if you’re vegan! :P) discussion here is how do we define ‘eco-friendliness’ or ‘green’. Everyone has their own definition, and we have yet to have a worldwide definition.
The real ‘juicy’ discussion
The tricky thing is that even if there is a fixed definition, it doesn’t mean it applies universally. There will always be debates and it might not capture every aspect we care about. So as consumers, the burden of buying the ‘right’ product lies on us. It is about how conscientious and curious we are in shaping our own definition of ‘green’ products. Some people might feel more engaged in going waste free, and some might be more passionate about vegan. Being ‘green’ is a very broad concept, and it deserves to be.
Here I am sharing with you my definition. Bear in mind that my list isn’t exhaustive, and everyone should have their own list. For instance, I care more about the environmental impact than whether something is cruelty-free. If I have to pick, I will choose the former. That’s how it is, that’s me. Don’t be scared that your list isn’t ‘perfect’, or that what YOU value isn’t in my / other’s list. Each to their own. Pick your battles.
what’s on my list?
What’s on my list?
1) It has to be ‘package-free’ or show that it’s trying to minimise the impact of waste packaging.
Like I mentioned above, sometimes it can be hard to go package-free. There are successful examples, for instance, you can totally buy soap bars package-free, and there are a lot of products that can be package-free, no problem. But if you’re buying eye cream that actually can go into your EYES, would you risk using your containers (that might or might not be sterile) to go to a shop to bulk buy the cream? Mind you, there is a risk that the creams are not well-preserved in the shop. Or perhaps your own containers are not clean enough. How can you be sure? Is ‘package free’ always the best? It is, but it relies on both the shop and consumers to take the storage and containers seriously.
But of course, some companies tried the best to ‘balance it off’ by being ‘less evil’. They might use seed paper and vegetable ink that are compostable or less toxic to the environment (check Awareness Organics & Ama Ella!) to protect the products because they are responsible for delivering goods in good conditions. Others might resort to using glass bottles that are reusable and recyclable. Some would also try to do the inevitable, but in a nice way - The Very Good Bra packages their goods in compostable plastic bags!
Ideally, we should really do our homework or ask questions and understand why products are packaged in a certain way, so we can evaluate whether there’s ‘overpackaging’.
2) It has to be ‘plastic-free’.
This is sort of a non-compromise but I am looking for more information. It’s commonly known that plastic last forever, but it doesn’t mean we can use it forever. Plastics break down to micro-plastics and that shit lasts forever, yes, but it doesn’t mean it will stay structurally intact and permanent for use. With so many different materials available in the market today, it is difficult to think that there are exceptions. For instance, Coconut Matter uses plastic-free packaging for their lip tint! Even plasters can be plastic-free. See one that’s made with bamboo from Patch (available at Live Zero)!!
Oh wait, there might be. If a product is moisture-sensitive, for instance, Sqwishful’s #noplastic sponges that expands when in contact with moisture, require a material that can effectively block moisture during transit. But then they recently are available for package-free purchase at Live Zero! Let’s see how that goes :) Excited if we can go package-free!!
Exceptions also include if your reusable product is made with plastics. Plastic is a very useful material, should you plan to reuse it for many more years to come.
3) Helps you reduce the amount of waste you create (pre- & during use).
This is self-explanatory, yet it can be tricky. Let’s take the example of reusable coffee cups. Some might say that the carbon footprint to produce coffee cups already exceed XXX number of paper cups that are consumed. If they can pull out the numbers with a reliable source, there really isn’t much room to argue. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make our case. If my focus is to relieve the burden of landfills and the amount of plastic produced and leaked into the ocean, then perhaps this carbon footprint is worth it. I am picking my battles.
Or take the popular canvas tote bags as an example. Yes, the production might cost more and uses more resources than than plastic bags, but just because shit stuff are so cheap and use less resources doesn’t mean we have to continue using shit stuff. Again, if your focus is to reduce plastic waste in landfill and the ocean, you’ve made your case.
Thank you @thebloodywriter for letting me know Ere Perez now have eyeshadow refills! How cool! Or Cosmos Studio that uses a lot less water & chemicals during the production process. Or reusable pads (I got mine from Delightfully Green), or reusable cotton pads! I’ve recently discovered a fruit basket delivery service What’s in HK that doesn’t use any plastics to wrap the fruits. True, they fly in their fruits from countries abroad, but I personally don’t consume these fancy fruits every single day. So in case I need to gift a fruit basket, this is my go-to minimum waste alternative!
4) Leaves minimal waste or is recyclable at the end of their life span.
I’m talking about examples such as The Very Good Bra that are compostable at the end of the life cycle. Or cosmetics products in glass jars that are reusable after the content is gone. It isn’t easy to find such a product, but as we are slowly progressing to circular economy (google term ‘cradle-to-cradle’!), I believe we will have more and more brands & products that reduces or reuses post-consumer waste, or better, use that waste to feed the cycle.
5) Does not use any ingredients that pollutes the environment or damage infrastructure. Need I say more?
Body scrubs with microplastics? No.
Coconut oil mouth wash that you spit into the sink that clogs the drain? No.
Sunscreen with oxybenzone that damages coral reefs? No.
Polyester that sheds off microplastics with every wash? No.
7) Something that you absolutely love.
An ‘eco-friendly’ product isn’t ‘eco-friendly’ if it’s just lying around at home. Loving the product also means you will take better care of it, and hence prolonging its lifespan!
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention buzzwords such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’ because all of them doesn’t necessarily mean ‘sustainable’. But we can leave this to another post.
My intention of this blog post is at multi-level. I would like to give MY view on what the broad definition / criteria of ‘green’ products are. Second, to encourage us to take a step back and look at ‘green’ products as a ‘movement’ at a macro-level. That we’re on a pursuit of perfection and critiquing brands for not being perfect might serve as a good reminder or indication of potential improvement, but it’s doing nothing in terms of enlarging the pie or incentivising brands so that more people join the market to provide better, ‘less evil’ solutions. It is not asking you to be lenient on brands, or compromise your values, but more so to be realistic on what can / cannot be done.